By Peter Sessum
Week three of the Hero’s Journey Home project. The process remains more of dipping a toe into the process rather than jumping into the deep end. Last week, we talked about what was our call to adventure. For me, it was subtle, but for many that joined after me, the attacks on 9/11 were their call.
This week, we reflect on crossing the threshold from civilian to military life. Of course, this part of the journey applies to everyone, not just those in the military. Especially if the transition requires a cultural shift. This can be entering the police academy, taking a corporate job after working in a small business, moving from a big corporation to a non-profit or moving away to take a job. Even a high school grad making the transition to college crosses a threshold. So, while civilians can’t relate to crossing the military threshold, they can relate to making transitions of their own.
Alright, let’s get after it. And yes, number seven isn’t a question, but I didn’t write it, I’m just doing it.
Reflection questions for Step 3:
- How did you imaging joining the service would change you?
- What did you gain from your service?
- What did you lose?
- When did you realize you had crossed the threshold into another, unknown world?
- What stands out as your most important initiation rite (or its negative, hazing)?
- If you received a new name, what do you think its significance was/is?
- Write one-page on your call to adventure using some of the questions above.
How I imagined the Army changing me and what I gained from service
I think Command Sergeant Major Kline said it best when he said that the Army won’t make you anything you aren’t already. He resisted the idea that the military would make a young guy into a man.
“If you are a punk, it will just make you a punk that knows how to shoot,” he would say.
I didn’t have any illusions of a great transformation. In fact, I didn’t have any real expectations. I saw it as an option to get out of the rut I was in. So, I don’t think the military changed me, but joining the Army put me in a different environment which let me express myself differently.
Growing up, I had a great imagination and loved to read about ancient cultures. As stated in Step 2, I was kind of invisible in my family. Being mixed race in an all-white town with my black family on the other side of the country forced me to find my own identity. I dove into books and comics and loved reading about ancient or tribal cultures.
That actually made my transition into the Army pretty easy. I already had a belief system based on a system of honor. So, I thought I had found my people in the military. Unfortunately, that was not the majority position in the Army. They will talk about honor, loyalty and integrity, but only as a system of control, too often, the leaders didn’t possess those qualities themselves.
That doesn’t mane it was all negative, I did gain a good sense of self. Finding something I was good at that others wouldn’t do gave me a sense of pride. I enjoyed pushing myself. Adversity doesn’t build character; it reveals it and I think how we suffer shows who we really are. Despite being messed with, I didn’t become a bully when I became strong. It made me want to protect the weak more. Too many leaders treated me poorly, so when I gained rank, I tried to be the leader I needed instead of following in SSG Thibodaux or SGT Berklund’s footsteps and treating my troops like shit.
What I lost from my service
What I lost was the connection to the people of my country. I love my country, and despite its history and flaws, I think it is pretty great. But I don’t feel connected to the people I thought I was protecting. It isn’t the major stuff; it is little things. Like when I see someone undercut a colleague it makes me not trust them. I know, intellectually, that “throwing someone under the bus” is not a big thing in the civilian world. It is a way to get ahead. But in the military, we call them a Blue Falcon and that is lowest form of life.
I believe that if you can’t be trusted with the little things, you can’t be trusted with the big things. The piece of shit soldier won’t suddenly rise to the challenge when bullets are flying. Anyone that says, “I’ll do the right thing when it matters” is either fooling themselves or lying to you. I know I the business world that lives are rarely on the line, but I have difficulty working with the kind of person that would get us all killed.
It is also difficult to relate to some civilians. Especially when it comes to stress or suffering. The military is long periods of boredom broken up with very short periods of chaos. So seeing people stressing out over something they have no control over it funny. But the problem is that civilians don’t think I’m taking things seriously. I had a boss that would get mad that I wasn’t stressing over a project. Or I wasn’t working on a bigger project with a looming deadline. My reasons were simple.
- I wanted to get project X off my desk so I could focus on project Y.
- Project Y will only take four hours to do.
- Project Y is due Tuesday
- Today is Friday
- The Tuesday deadline is an arbitrary one we made up, the client doesn’t expect it anytime soon
- Under no circumstances will anyone die or be injured regardless of the outcome.
That boss always hated me for stuff like that. He would also constantly move back the deadlines showing that they truly didn’t matter. He would say we needed more time work on it even after I would clarify that it was only a couple hours of work and I had two days to do it. That whole office was wound too tight as a reflection of his management.
Moving on, my most important initiation, to me, rite was getting my Airborne Wings presented to me by a man who jumped into Normandy. He punched my wings into my chest and it was a proud moment for me. I was welcomed into the Airborne Corps by one of the founding members. I didn’t have much in the way of hazing. Only one incident stands out.
So there I was, at Fort Knox… no shit. We were in the motor pool doing command maintenance. Just like 90 percent of the vehicles in the military that week, none of our tracks had moved sine the last maintenance day. Per usual, when soldiers get bored, shenanigans ensue.
I never went through any Army driver training , my squad leader just pencil whipped our licenses so I didn’t really know how to do a proper Prevent Maintenance Checks and Services (PMCS). So, when Sal offered me tips to better checks I went along with it. He crawled on the ground and tapped a spot in the armor and then another and marked the second.
Yes, he helped me find “soft spots” in the armor.
“Here, you try,” he said handing me the hammer.
I tapped one spot, sounded like his first tap. When I tapped another spot, my critical thinking kicked in. Something didn’t feel right. When I looked over to the rest of the section they started laughing. I wasn’t embarrassed, Sal got me good and I can laugh at myself. I don’t think I would have fallen for it if his delivery wasn’t so good. I’m glad I wasn’t the trooped that marked up an entire vehicle without every figuring it out.
That was the good-natured stuff you do to welcome a kid into the platoon. Everyone gets fooled at some point, that was just my turn. What I never understood is intentionally segregating members of your unit. Unfortunately, it is a commo theme in my life. I was never one of the “cool kids.” It doesn’t bother me that some people feel the need to feel “cool” or better than other people. That is usually more about their own insecurities than the quality of the excluded. What does bother me is when it is done to the detriment to the unit.
Infantry training in one of the few trainings in the Army that is all done at the same location. We do basic training and our Infantry AIT in the same barracks, the same drill sergeants, everything. So there I was, at Fort Benning…no shit; a few trainees started calling themselves the Motivated Privates. It was like their own little gang inside a basic training bay. What they missed is that we were supposed to all be part of one unit and not be separated.
This cub was a popularity contest based on who they thought were “cool” and had nothing to do with ability. Like many that judge who is cool and who is not, they favored those they thought were worthy and undercut those that they determined were not. They were literally Blue Falcons to their fellow soldiers.
I was 22-years-old in basic. While today I think of the maturity difference between 18 and 22 to be negligible, at that time, in that environment it seemed to be a great divide. I just wanted to do my job and get to my unit, but they insisted on messing with me. These BFs told the drill sergeants I cheated on the final PT run. Not because they thought I had or had any evidence, but because I got the fastest time and how could an unmotivated private beat a motivated one? I think one of the MPs, as thy called themselves, was booted out for being lackluster and another was recycled because he couldn’t qualify with his rifle. They might have been motivated, but they sucked as soldiers. That is what happens with you put popularity over ability.
Receiving a new name
Being called Sessum was a good way to help the enculturation process. It separated me from the civilian me in the known world and helped establish me in the new, unknown world. But it didn’t hold any particular significance that I can think of. It most likely had an effect that I didn’t notice.
I nth military, your rank becomes part of your name and identity. So being Sergeant Sessum had a significant impact. I loved the responsibility of leadership, not the power. I felt it was an opportunity to improve my little corner of the Army rather than react to it. I tried to mentor young soldiers and it felt good to me that soldiers form other teams would often come to me for guidance. It meant I had eared their respect, but it also meant that they had lost confidence in their own leaders. Something I never wanted to do. The respect of my subordinates was paramount to me. This doesn’t mean I was the “fun” sergeant. I was kind of a hard case, one of the “hard but fair” knuckleheads. Looking back, I did okay, but I could have used better mentors and a little more maturity to reach my full potential as a leader.
The renaming that most stuck with me was being renamed “Tim.” There was a medic in Germany that didn’t like to use last names but never knew what my first name was so he just started calling me Tim. I knew he was referring to me, so I went along with it. After a couple weeks I asked him why Tim, he said it was because I looked like a Tim to him. I said he looked like a “Joey” so for the rest of my time there we were Tim and Joey.
That would have been the end of it, but when I deployed as PSYOP they said we had to wear sterilized uniforms and go by first names or nicknames for OPSEC. I told my team that I would answer to Tim so that is who I became. Psychologically, it made it easier to be overseas as Tim than as my true self. When I was later hired to work on a counter narcotics program in Kandahar, I went back to using Tim. Again, for the sake of security, but also because my contacts there knew me only as Tim.
Crossing the threshold into the military was an interesting process. I knew I was in a different world as soon as I signed my final contract at MEPS. We were sworn in and waiting to be taken to the hotels to fly out to basic training the next day. I had been on “official” soldier for all of two minutes when a solider at the recruiting station yelled at me to take my cover off. It seemed a little extreme to me to yell at someone over something so small. Also, it is good to inform a person of a standard before you chastise them for failing to follow that standard.
The joining the military hero’s journey was not the one that made things the most difficult. I think I ultimately rejoined the civilian, or known world easily. I feel like I was able to rejoin the civilian world easily. That is because my first discharge was prior to 9/11. I think starting another journey of going overseas was the return that was much more difficult.